You don't have to be Lance Armstrong to go bicycling on your next trip. From adventure trips in the Rockies to leisurely rides through the French countryside, seeing the world by bicycle is an increasingly popular option for travelers — even those who may not consider themselves athletes. As long as you're reasonably fit and familiar with your own limits, you're a good candidate for a cycling tour.
Not sure if it's right for you? Read on — we'll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of traveling by bike, explain your tour options, and help you prepare for your trip.
Q: Is a bike trip right for me?
A: There are so many different types of bike trips and tours that there's something suitable for almost every reasonably fit traveler — even those with very little biking experience. Most bike tour operators clearly label their trips as easy, moderate or difficult to help travelers find the right level for their abilities. There's a similar range in the amount of luxury to be found —independent bikers may wish to camp out and eat picnic fare from local markets, while organized tours often offer overnights in four-star hotels and multi-course dinners.
Some travelers go on bike trips for the personal challenge — to test their physical limits. For others, the main appeal of a cycling trip is to get a more personal travel experience than is possible from riding on a bus, on a train or in a car; many bike tours take you along back roads and through small towns, giving you a first-hand look at the local culture. Traveling by bike is also better for the environment and better for your body than most other modes of transportation.
Of course, bike travel isn't right for everyone. If you're out of shape and not willing or able to train a bit beforehand, you may wind up injured or exhausted midway through your tour. Similarly, if you're not prepared for a bit of discomfort in the form of heat, muscle aches and inclement weather, you might be better off with a more comfortable, climate-controlled mode of transportation.
Fitness and comfort aside, the relatively slow pace of bike travel may not suit you if you're trying to cram in a lot of sightseeing into a limited amount of time — especially if you're mostly interested in big cities, which tend to be less friendly to bikers. (There are exceptions, of course. Bike tours are available in many cities, such as Philadelphia and New York, and cyclists are almost more common than drivers in Amsterdam.)
Q: Should I take a tour or go on my own?
A: Unless you're an experienced cyclist, you're probably better off going with a tour company. They'll plan your route, supply you with a bike and transfer your luggage from one hotel to the next. Guided tours also generally include a knowledgeable trip leader and the services of a support van, which follows cyclists along the route to distribute refreshments or pick up anyone who needs a lift.
For cyclists who want a little more independence, many tour operators also offer self-guided options, which don't include a guide or support van but may include detailed route maps, hotel accommodations and luggage transfers. This is a good option for more experienced cyclists who know their own limits and would prefer to set their own pace.
If you're a biking veteran, you may want to design your own independent cycling tour. This requires a bit more planning and research ahead of time; you'll need appropriate gear, detailed maps of the area you'll be exploring and tools to fix any minor mechanical problems that occur along the way. GORP has an excellent biking guide with how-to advice and gear recommendations to help get your planning started. Bicycle Touring 101 is another useful resource.
Q: What should I do to prepare?
A: While training, you should replicate the conditions of your trip as closely as possible. Will you be cycling 30 miles a day? Work up to that distance at home beforehand — and make sure you're carrying the same amount of gear you'll be bringing on your trip. If possible, do your training on real streets (as opposed to a stationary bike) to get used to bumps, potholes and other hazards of the road.
Bicycle Touring 101 recommends making your first bike tour a trip to a hotel or motel within a 90-minute drive from home — that way if you run out of steam, it's not too big of a deal for a friend or family member to come pick you up. Have a good dinner and spend the night at the hotel, and then bike home the next day. This will give you a good taste of what cycle touring is like and help you figure out whether you're up for a longer trip.
Q: Should I bring my own bike? If so, how do I do it?
A: If you're taking a tour, you shouldn't need to bring your own bike; the ones supplied by tour operators tend to be well maintained and well suited for the local terrain. If you're planning your own trip, though, it may be worth the hassle of bringing your own. Local bike rental shops often don't offer the caliber of bike you'll need for a longer journey — and when your bike is your primary mode of transportation for a week (or more!), it's important to have one you're comfortable with.
Most airlines accept bicycles as checked luggage under certain conditions. Generally, the handlebars must be fixed sideways and the pedals removed; alternatively, the pedals and handlebars may be enclosed in plastic foam or a similar protective material. As long as your bicycle conforms to your airline's size and weight limits for checked baggage (typically 50 pounds and 62 dimensional inches), you will not usually be charged. Bikes that exceed these limits will be subject to the airline's excess baggage surcharges. For more information, visit your airline's Web site.
Q: What else should I bring?
A: It depends on whether you're taking a tour for traveling independently. In either case you'll want to bring clothes suited for all possible weather, as well as energy bars or other snacks, a water bottle, and detailed route maps (whether they're supplied by your tour operator or obtained on your own).
REI sells a wide array of biking clothing and other gear. Depending on your tour operator, you may also need to bring your own helmet — check ahead of time to see whether it's included in the price of your tour. If you're planning on dining out in the evenings, you'll also want to make sure you have more formal clothes to change into after a day of cycling.
If you're going it alone, you'll need quite a bit more gear, but remember — anything you pack will be extra weight to lug along the way, so try to pack as lightly as possible. GORP has a useful packing list for independent cyclists.
Q: How much will it cost?
A: City tours could cost as little as $25 for a few hours, while longer trips can range from less than $100 a day to well over $500 a day per person. Self-guided tours are generally cheaper than guided tours.
Independent bike trips can be done for much less, depending on your choice of accommodations. If budget is a concern, you can tote your own camping gear or stay in hostels. Your dining choices will also affect the cost; purchasing food from local markets is generally the best way to keep costs down.
Q: How do I go about finding a bike tour?
A: There are dozens of bike tour operators around the globe. Here are a few of our favorite tour operators and resource sites:
Backroads: Guided tours in Europe, Asia/Pacific, and Latin and North America.
BicyclingWorld.com: Clearinghouse for more than 1,000 guided and self-guided tours from 75 suppliers, including options for families, women and seniors.
BikeToursDirect: Clearinghouse for guided and self-guided tours throughout Europe.
Butterfield & Robinson: Guided tours in Europe, Africa, Asia/Pacific, Latin America and Oceania.
Euro-Bike Tours: Guided tours in Europe and New Zealand.
VBT: Guided tours in Europe, the U.S., Canada, Vietnam, New Zealand, South Africa and Costa Rica.
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